5 Ways Apple Has Broken Steve Jobs’s Product Design Rules
It’s hard to overstate the influence that Steve Jobs has had on Apple. Besides being one of the company’s original co-founders, Jobs also helped bring Apple back from the brink of bankruptcy when he returned to run the company in 1997. Under his guidance, Apple developed and released three of the company’s most successful products: the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad. Soon after his death in October 2011, the company posted an obituary that according to CNN Money stated that “Steve leaves behind a company that only he could have built, and his spirit will forever be the foundation of Apple.”
More recently, Job’s successor and current CEO Tim Cook noted the influence that Jobs continues to have on the company in an interview with talk show host Charlie Rose. “He is deep in Apple’s DNA. His spirit will always be the foundation of the company,” said Cook. “If you think about the things Steve stood for at a macro-level, he stood for innovation. He stood for the simple, not the complex. He knew that Apple should only enter areas where we could control the primary technology. All of these things are still deep in our company.”
Since the company still derives the vast majority of its revenue from products that were originally created under Jobs’s tenure, there is little doubt that the legendary co-founder and CEO is still “deep in Apple’s DNA.” That being said, Apple has also not been afraid to break with some of Jobs’s strongly held opinions regarding certain aspects of these tech products.. For better or for worse, here are five ways that Apple has diverged from Jobs’s product design rules.
1. iPhones with screens bigger than 3.5 inches
Apple’s original iPhone and the several generations of models that followed it all featured 3.5-inch screens, a screen size that Steve Jobs once described as the “perfect size for consumers,” as noted by CNBC. In 2011, the same year when Samsung and other rivals were introducing smartphones with screens as big as 5 inches, Jobs weighed in with his opinion on larger-screen smartphones.
According to Engadget, while responding to a question related to the iPhone 4’s reception problems, Jobs observed that making a phone so large that “you can’t get your hand around it” might help reception, but “no one’s going to buy that.” He also later derisively referred to rivals’ larger-screen smartphones as “Hummers.”
Despite Jobs’s firm pronouncements on the ideal smartphone screen size, Apple released the 4-inch iPhone 5 in 2012. In 2014, the company made an even bigger increase to 4.7 inch and 5.5 inch screen sizes on the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6 Plus, respectively. Samsung, a company that pioneered the phablet segment of the smartphone market with its Galaxy Note product line, couldn’t resist pointing out Apple’s change of heart in a tweet featuring Jobs’s quote about big smartphones.
While it’s impossible to know if Jobs’s opinion of larger-screen smartphones would have changed after seeing how thin the latest iPhone models are, there’s no question that the screen size increases have paid off for Apple. The company has had no trouble selling these larger iPhones in bigger and bigger droves.
2. Tablets smaller than the original iPad
Steve Jobs had some pretty firm ideas about what the ideal screen size for a tablet should be, just as he did for smartphones. During the company’s fiscal fourth quarter earnings call in 2010, the former CEO weighed in with his opinion on what he called “the avalanche of tablets poised to enter the market in the coming months,” according to a transcript provided by Seeking Alpha. As noted by Jobs, many of those tablets — including Samsung’s then-new Galaxy Tab – featured 7-inch screens.
“One naturally thinks that a seven-inch screen would offer 70% of the benefits of a 10-inch screen. Unfortunately, this is far from the truth. The screen measurements are diagonal, so that a seven-inch screen is only 45% as large as iPad’s 10-inch screen,” explained Jobs.
“Apple’s done extensive user-testing on touch interfaces over many years, and we really understand this stuff,” he continued. “There are clear limits of how close you can physically place elements on a touch screen before users cannot reliably tap, flick or pinch them. This is one of the key reasons we think the 10-inch screen size is the minimum size required to create great tablet apps.”
Despite Jobs’s opposition to making a tablet with a screen smaller than 10 inches, the company introduced the 7.9-inch iPad mini around two years later. Tim Cook defended this decision during a fiscal fourth quarter earnings call in 2012 by pointing out that Jobs was opposed to a 7-inch tablet, not a 7.9-inch tablet. “But the difference in just the realistic size between the 7.9, almost 8 versus 7 is 35%,” said Cook in a transcript provided by Seeking Alpha. “And when you look at the usable area, it’s much greater than that. It’s from 50% to 67%. And also, the iPad Mini has the same number of pixels as iPad 2 does.”
While it’s true that Jobs seemed most opposed to the idea of a 7-inch tablet, the former CEO also plainly stated that “the 10-inch screen size is the minimum size required to create great tablet apps.” And while Cook boasted about the higher pixel count of the iPad mini, Jobs specifically dismissed the idea that resolution could compensate for a tablet’s small screen size.
“Well, one could increase the resolution of the display to make up for some of the difference,” said Jobs, according to Seeking Alpha. “It is meaningless, unless your tablet also includes sandpaper, so that the user can sand down their fingers to around one quarter of the present size.”
While it may be awkward to introduce a product line that appears to contradict your former boss’s wishes, Cook doesn’t really need to defend the iPad mini since its success speaks for itself. Although Apple does not separate iPad sales numbers by model, it’s probably safe to assume that the iPad mini has proven reasonably popular since Apple recently released the third generation of the product in October 2014.
3. Non-skeuomorphic software design
Skeuomorphs — realistic imitations of real-world objects — were a major component of early iOS designs. Before iOS 7, Apple’s mobile operating system featured a Notes app icon that looked like a legal pad, a Calendar app icon that looked like a paper-based calendar, and a Game Center that featured a green felt cloth background. Although skeuomorphs can be useful for visually communicating the function of an app to users, the overuse of this design approach can also make software look cluttered and tacky.
Insider sources cited by Fast Company claimed that Jobs was a big proponent of this design approach. “iCal’s leather-stitching was literally based on a texture in his Gulfstream jet,” an unnamed former Apple designer told Fast Company. “There was lots of internal email among UI designers at Apple saying this was just embarrassing, just terrible.”
According to Fast Company’s sources, former software design leader Scott Forstall was also a fan of skeuomorphic software design. In 2012, Forstall left the company in the wake of the problematic Maps app launch and renowned hardware designer Jony Ive was put in charge of Apple’s human interface design. Although Jobs considered Ive to be his “spiritual partner,” as noted by CNET, Ive led the effort to strip all the skeuomorphic elements from iOS 7 in favor of a minimalist design.
Despite Jobs’s love of skeuomorphs in software design, Apple has largely abandoned that design approach because of the familiarity that most people now have with touchscreen-enabled mobile devices. “When we sat down last November (to work on iOS 7), we understood that people had already become comfortable with touching glass, they didn’t need physical buttons, they understood the benefits,” Ive told USA Today soon after the debut of iOS 7 in 2013. “So there was an incredible liberty in not having to reference the physical world so literally. We were trying to create an environment that was less specific. It got design out of the way.”
4. iPad Pro
Jobs was famously opposed to pairing a stylus with a tablet. “It’s like we said on the iPad, if you see a stylus, they blew it,” said Jobs during an iPhone event in 2010, according to Engadget. Jobs’s disdain for styluses appeared to be related to his love of simplicity, as he revealed during the original iPhone presentation. “Who wants a stylus?” he asked rhetorically at Macworld 2007. “You have to get them and put them away, you lose them. Yuck! Nobody wants a stylus.”
Was Jobs right? Nope. Look over at Samsung and you’ll see it’s Galaxy Note line has been popular in spite of prominently feauturing a stylus for its advanced features. A finger might be great for simple interactions, but the precision of a stylus is hard to beat.
Apple wanted to make a tablet for more complex tasks, and to do that, a stylus was a must (albeit still an optional accessory). The iPad Pro isn’t just an example of Apple straying from Jobs’s design rules, it’s also an instance of Apple playing catchup with other tech companies — in this case, Microsoft’s Surface Pro series.
5. Apple Watch
Would Steve Jobs be a fan of the Apple Watch? As Jony Ive revealed to Bloomberg in September 2014, the Apple Watch was fully conceived and created after Jobs’s death so the legendary company co-founder apparently had no input on the project. So while it’s impossible to know how Jobs would have felt about Apple’s wearable tech device, some industry watchers have made convincing arguments that the Apple Watch would have never passed muster with Jobs.
VentureBeat’s John Koetsier cited Jobs’s criticisms about the design of the original Segway as a good jumping off place for understanding how he might have perceived the Apple Watch. According to an excerpt of Steve Kemper’s book Code Name Ginger provided by Harvard Business School, Jobs was highly critical of the Segway’s design.
“’Its shape is not innovative, it’s not elegant, it doesn’t feel anthropomorphic,’ said Jobs, ticking off three of his design mantras,” according to Kemper. “’You have this incredibly innovative machine but it looks very traditional…There are design firms out there that could come up with things we’ve never thought of…things that would make you shit in your pants.’”
So how does the Apple Watch measure up to Jobs’s design mantras? With a rounded rectangular shape that closely resembles many of the smartwatches currently on the market – including the Samsung Galaxy Gear seen above – the Apple Watch can hardly be called “innovative” in this respect. Similarly, it’s hard to see how the Apple Watch’s fairly conventional appearance makes it either “elegant” or “anthropomorphic,” much less make you lose control of your bowels.
Finally, it’s worth noting that Apple’s most successful products had revolutionary functions that made them must-have devices. The iPod put 1,000 songs in your pocket and the iPhone put the Internet in your pocket. What revolutionary function does the Apple Watch have? Essentially it is a wrist worn device that relays messages from your iPhone.
For all of these reasons, it is quite possible that Jobs’s reaction to the Apple Watch might have resembled the reaction of Hartmut Esslinger, a designer who along with Ive is responsible for Apple’s most memorable product designs. “Smartwatches are stupid,” Esslinger told Forbes. “Why would I put cheap electronics on my wrist as a symbol of (my) emotion?”
All told, Apple has remained wildly successful, and the decisions that led the company to violate Jobs’s product design rules were obviously justified.
Jobs himself even admitted that his strong opinions could change from moment to moment. “I just care about success,” said Jobs in a 1995 interview with Bob Cringely provided by CBS News. “So you’ll find a lot of people that will tell you that I had a very strong opinion and they, you know, presented evidence to the contrary and five minutes later, I completely changed my mind, because I’m like that. I don’t mind being wrong and I’ll admit I’m wrong a lot. It doesn’t really matter to me too much. What matters to me is that we do the right thing.” In this sense, breaking Jobs’s product design rules may be the best way for Apple to keep his spirit alive.
Follow Nathanael on Twitter @ArnoldEtan_WSCS